Nation's Capital Moves Closer to Full Voting Rights

Washington, D.C.
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The U.S. House of Representatives last month passed milestone legislation that would give the District of Columbia full representation in Congress. Former congressman and vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp and a Washington Post columnist discuss the bill's future.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, August Wilson's last play - it premiers on Broadway today. But first, it's been 400 years since the founding of the Jamestown settlement, 230 years since the founding of the Republic. But residents of the nation's capital still don't have full representation in Congress. But after all this time, that might be changing.

Last month, the House passed a bill that would add a voting member in Congress for Washington, D.C. The deal is that Utah would get another seat. Senate hearings start next week, and there are support for the bill on both sides of the aisle. But after all this time, why now?

The reasons, it seems, go far deeper than the interest of a half a million people within in the District of Columbia. Joining us on the phone to talk about all this is Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher. On Sunday he wrote about the interesting confluence of circumstances that may yet lead to a vote for D.C. Also on the line is former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp. He's been a longtime supporter of D.C. voting rights.

Welcome gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): Great to be with you.

Mr. JACK KEMP (Former Secretary, Housing and Urban Development; Former Republican Representative, California): Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: Marc, for those who don't know, D.C. has a delegate who can vote in committee, but not on the floor. Why doesn't D.C. have a full vote and how long has it been trying to get one?

Mr. FISHER: Well, the District of Columbia has been trying to get representation in Congress for many, many years, at least half a century. And the reason that it doesn't have it is because the constitution says so. The constitution says that members of the House of Representatives will come from, as the constitution puts it, the several states. And the District of Columbia is by definition not a state. But we're talking - it's really a question of constitutional semantics, because as Congress has decided many times over the years, there are lots of things that are reserved to the states that people who lived in D.C. do get to do, such as pay income taxes, serve in the military, sue in federal courts.

So Congress frequently decides to treat D.C. residents as if they belong to a state. They haven't done it yet on voting in Congress.

MARTIN: Why is D.C. after all this time finally in striking distance?

Mr. FISHER: Well, I think a few things have come together all at once. First of all, you have to change over a power in Congress, so a Democratic majority is looking for some issues that they can move ahead on that the Republicans did not move ahead on. More important, though, I think you're seeing a bipartisan interest in civil rights at the moment.

There's kind of a discomfort, especially - well, throughout Congress about this idea that we are trying to bring democracy to Iraq and other parts of the world, and yet we have this yawning gap in our own democracy, half a million Americans who cannot vote for a member of Congress.

MARTIN: Jack Kemp, you - now, I described you as a former Republican congressman, but that doesn't really capture the half of it. You're a former Republican Congressman from New York. You're a former housing secretary. You're a former vice presidential candidate. And all this time it has to be said, you've been a supporter of voting rights. But why do you care?

Mr. KEMP: Well, for several reasons. Number one, I want the Republican Party to return to its roots. As Marc pointed out, the Republican Party was the original party of civil and human and equal and voting rights. A Republican president, President Grant, was the first president to ever send troops to the South to guarantee and enforced voting rights for African-Americans who'd been emancipated after the Civil War.

So the vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act by Barry Goldwater, who was not a racist, but he did it on either libertarian grounds or defensive so-called property rights, I think there's been a distortion within the party and a lack of understanding, I should say, about the roots of the Republican Party's support for emancipation and liberation and voting and equal rights. So this is a chance to make our party whole, W-H-O-L-E, again by supporting an African-American city run by an African-American mayor, Adrian Fenty, and I just think it's a chance to get on the right side of history.

MARTIN: But on the other side of it, do you think this fact that this is a majority African-American city has been part of the resistance to this point?

Mr. KEMP: I hope not. It's certainly a Democratic city and there's nothing wrong with that, a lot of cities are, but if the Republican Party is ever to be competitive in urban America, I think this is one way to show that not only do we care about enterprise zones and school choice and better education and getting people jobs as opposed to welfare; this would be a chance, in my opinion, to show a concern.

And as far as Mark pointed out in his very outstanding article in the Washington Post last Sunday, there's a distortion of the constitutional debate. Article 1, Section 2 says, as Mark pointed out, that only - the Congress can only allow a state to vote. Then Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 says the United States Congress has total and unambiguous authority over the District of Columbia and it can be treated as a state for certain reasons. And I think one of those good reasons would be not only just to send their boys and - I mean, for lack of better word, girls, men and women, to Baghdad and Kabul to guarantee the vote in those countries that are struggling to be democratic and free; we should be doing it here in the District of Columbia and have a vote in the House of Representatives.

So I think Tom Davis, the Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate, who's a Democrat and an African-American, have worked together on a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to bring this thing to a head in the Senate next week.

MARTIN: Marc Fisher, it's my understanding that it was Tom Davis's idea to pair the vote for the District of Columbia with the vote for Utah, is that right?

Mr. FISHER: Yes. And it's really a kind of a brilliant political stroke because what he did is he took the central obstacle to D.C. voting rights, which is the fact that it is essentially a partisan move because the seat from D.C. would almost surely be Democratic, probably for many years, if not in perpetuity. And he said, okay, let's neutralize that issue by giving one seat to D.C., which would be Democratic, and create another seat for a largely Republican state, in this case Utah, where there was a tremendous amount of frustration that they didn't get an extra seat in the last census because they came just so close to qualifying for one.

So you know, this - Davis began this process early in the decade, saying, look, I can give you a whole decade of an extra seat in Congress, and that brought a fair number of Republicans and certainly the state of Utah onboard. Now that we're getting toward the end of the decade, there's a little bit less allure to that idea, but he still thinks that it will work just to get that four or five years of extra advantage.

MARTIN: So it's both politics and the civil rights aspect of it. But Marc Fisher, I wanted to ask you, there's two questions on this. First of all, Jack Kemp pointed out, this is a majority African-American city and for some people this is a civil rights issue, you know, and it's an embarrassment to the country. How is it that you consider to deny voting rights to this — for African-Americans, for some African particularly this is a civil rights issue. But do the changing demographics of the city also play into this? For example, the city council is majority white here. Now, do you think that is part of the added momentum of the bill? Or do you think it is still seen or has the rest of the country just caught up to this idea, as this is a civil rights issue?

Mr. FISHER: I think, you know, after many years of writing about this, two things come clear to me. Number one, the rest of the country doesn't know and for the most part doesn't care. This is a parochial issue in their view. You know, when you present it to people and say, isn't it unfair that half a million Americans don't get to vote for a congressperson, they say, oh, absolutely, and they come onboard. But it's certainly not front of mind in most of the country.

But the other thing that strikes me is that every time I've written about this for 20 years, I get a whole ton of racial hate mail. So there is clearly a racial element to this story and how it's perceived. People constantly writing in to say, you know, if Washington D.C. didn't have a crack-smoking mayor back in the '80s, and they, you know, they don't deserve to have democracy. It's really kind of appalling to hear that. But what I think is changing...

MARTIN: But nobody talks about - you know, Louisiana has had its problems with, you know...

Mr. FISHER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...political corruption, but you don't hear about that. So you - so you think it is race, not politics per se.

Mr. FISHER: I think...

MARTIN: Not partisanship per se.

Mr. FISHER: ...it is a piece of that. Race is definitely a piece of it, but what's happened in the last 10, 15 years is that particularly because the city had a Mayor Anthony Williams for the past eight years who is not only African-American but was associated with superb management, I think it turned around the image of the city in many ways. This is a booming city. It's a city with a strong economy, and I think that change in political management style has certainly made a lot of folks more comfortable with the idea that there is a real injustice here that needs to be addressed.

MARTIN: Jack Kemp, Marc Fisher was saying that to the degree that the rest of the country does know about this - and he's not sure the rest of the country does know about it - that he's kind of gotten some negative reaction to that. Do you think - you know, your concern is in part that this issue will resonate. Do you really think that it will, that this will been seen as an opportunity for the Republican Party to be on the right side of history, as it were, after many years of not being seen as welcoming and inclusive? Do you really think it will resonate?

Mr. KEMP: Well, I don't know if it resonates ubiquitously, universally, but I think on the street it does. People know whose side you're on. Do you care about people, and do you care about equality of opportunity? And every single vote along those lines adds up to your capital, your basic capital.

And it seems to me that Marc might get hate mail. I've gotten some nasty letters. I don't think it's race as much as I think it's just - you know, they say the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. I think there's a lot of indifference to this city, and we want this city to be a city on the hill. We want it to be the greatest capital in the world, and I think the only way you can really make it a city set on a hill is to show concern, compassion, interest.

And by voting for this bill, again, it won't resonate ubiquitously, but in my opinion, on the street it will. And people know where you stand. People know, by word of mouth, which side you're on. And I think Marc is exactly correct in suggesting, however, that there are those who think that this is - you know, people are playing politics with this. Politics is always an issue. We live in a political town.

MARTIN: Jack Kemp, I'm sorry, I have to interrupt. I'm sorry, Jack Kemp, I have to interrupt. We only have about a minute left. Why not just make D.C. a state?

Mr. KEMP: Well, it's not a state. It's a city, and that's just not going to happen.

MARTIN: It has more residents than Vermont, more residents than Wyoming.

Mr. KEMP: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why not just make it a state?

Mr. KEMP: Yeah. It's not a state, it's a city. And I think that's one thing that probably loses us some support for the Voting Rights Act, because people think, oh, this is just the first step towards a state and we'll get two senators. And there are those who believe that, and I'm sure that's in the back of some people's mind. But as far as I'm concerned, it is a city, not a state. It's the national capital and it should have the vote.

MARTIN: Okay. Marc Fisher, 30 seconds to you. President Bush says he's not against - I think he says he's going to veto the bill. Does that end the conversation?

Mr. KEMP: Well, it's not clear. His - some of his staffers have said they recommend that he veto the bill. He's clearly against two senators from the District of Columbia. He's never been quite clear on the question of a voting member of the House. There's a fair belief that he will not go against this if there's bipartisan support for it.

MARTIN: All right. Okay, I'm sorry. We have to leave it at that. Thank you both, gentlemen. I appreciate it.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher and former congressman and cabinet secretary Jack Kemp, now heading Kemp Partners in Washington, D.C. Thanks for joining us.

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